Imagine two preschool students: One sits at a table in a classroom of peers and learns basic arithmetic via teacher-led instruction and individual completion of a workbook. The other student learns the same lesson but collaboratively: Children roleplayed the buying of items from a shop where the teacher was the clerk and helped each other figure out a budget and total costs.

Which student do you think ultimately performed better?

It’s not a hypothetical question. It’s an example of daily student life during the Perry Preschool project of the 1960s, which intended to increase students’ IQs through non-traditional learning. When the immediate test results showed no notable increase in students’ IQs, naysayers deemed the experiment a failure. However, the children who participated in this learning experiment have been tracked over 50 years — and the results are astounding. Preschoolers who spent a mere two and a half hours per day learning through collaborative methodologies have shown clear differences in earnings, job stability, functional interpersonal relationships, and even incarceration rates across their lives compared to their peers who learned through traditional, non-collaborative methods. This is 50 years of benefits from a few weekly hours of collaborative learning over two years.

It turns out that non-cognitive skills, such as collaborative problem-solving, group planning, peer reviewing and relationship management (aka soft skills), are a much higher determinant of achieving success over time than the ability to prove cognitive knowledge.

Why is this research study important for corporate learning? Because both learners and chief learning officers (CLOs) have deemed leadership skills (a difficult mix of soft skills) the most important training issue facing organizations today. Both groups also said that collaborative learning (learning with and from others) is the ideal modality for tackling that high-stakes topic.

In addition, GP Strategies’ 2019 “Voice of the Learner” report found that “more than 70% of respondents want to learn with someone else, whether it’s in a group, online, offline, or one-on-one. Organizations should not lose sight that shared experiences and learning together should represent a significant part of their strategy. Technology can be an enabler of learning and the human connection.”

Let’s Take This Online

Synonyms of the word collaboration include partnership, alliance, cooperation and “in concert with.” It’s what we already do in our day-to-day lives, learning from others through stories of their lived experiences, learning by accomplishing tasks with others and learning by participating in groups via technology.

Online collaborative learning gives employees the chance to interact with each other, learn from each other’s projects, absorb and reflect upon new ideas, ask questions and receive answers from both peers and subject matter experts, and progress both individually and as a group.

In conjunction with learning concepts (i.e., the content), collaborative learning encourages a team-based mentality; deepens interpersonal and soft skills such as active and empathetic listening, communication skills, and expressing expectations; and helps hone the ability to accept well-intentioned criticism.

But Is It Really Interactive?

A good test for determining if an online learning experience is truly collaborative is to test if a learner could complete the training without personally engaging with others. This engagement extends beyond the ability to give a “thumbs-up” to a fellow learner’s post or to provide an individual answer within a discussion thread. Learning does not become collaborative just because learners have the ability to interact with each other within the learning platform. Even when learners can interact with each other, will they? Unfortunately, many won’t — unless the collaborative elements of the learning experience are woven into the fabric of the experience. A truly collaborative learning experience relies on the content and knowledge provided and shared by fellow learners in addition to any cognitive topics administered throughout the learning journey.

To create a collaborative environment, you must design a learning experience that is dependent on the interactions of learners with their peers. The participants in the learning experience are not just in it, they are it; the learners themselves create and provide content for each other to learn from. This element is the pivotal differentiator of collaborative learning from other forms of learning.

Online collaborative learning is not pressing a “like” button or reading someone else’s posts. It’s active and interactive. Although reading and rating others’ content is important to a successful online collaborative experience, you can’t offer those two capabilities and call it a good program. Collaborative learning involves learning at a personal level. It pivots around person-to-person engagement as a primary vessel for the learning taking place.

And Yet…

In the survey mentioned earlier, learners and CLOs rated their own organizational learning cultures as “meh” when it comes to effectiveness. Despite learners’ and CLOs’ clear preference for collaborative learning, despite the well-known failure rates of corporate training’s historic methodologies, and despite the fact that collaborative learning bolsters both cognitive and non-cognitive skills that are vital to business success, most organizations are still deploying self-guided e-learning modules.

No wonder learners have such little faith in their organization’s learning initiatives: It doesn’t meet their needs, and it doesn’t teach them the right skills in the right way.

Collaborative online learning can break this cycle of ineffective learning and, as with the Perry preschool experiment, have far-reaching positive implications for learners and for business.